I attended an ESRC funded seminar today and organised by the Landsdown Centre for Electronic Arts on new forms of doctorates. This was the third seminar in the series. As someone who undertook a practice based PhD some years back (that admittedly was not altogether a totally a rewarding institutional experience), I found the seminar both stimulating and cathartic. David Durling, a Professor of Art and Design at Middlesex University, discussed the history of the PhD within the Design field emphasising the difference between ‘practice’ and ‘research’. He also discussed the difference between a ‘Doctorate’ and a ‘PhD’ which the former being more professional and vocational whilst the later is research-based. He stressed in his talk is that not all disciplines have identical cognate skills and some require the development of research skills in areas such as visual communication and performance.
The research qualification that is the PhD must provide reliable evidence that is discoverable and re-usable by others. And a PhD must provide an original argument within the rigours of a peer-assessed field and this argument must stand up against competing evidence. If it does this; the form shouldn’t be the major concern as the major concern should be whether the form presented is adequate enough evidence to communicate the tacit knowledge of the researcher and the research endeavour undertaken (and the required cognate skills). Many forms aren’t up to this task.
And I do worry a little that debates about new forms of PhDs may be so complex and un-containable that they are in danger of being hijacked by anti-academic and simplistic discourses such a technological determinism. Not all technical ‘progress’ is in the interest of research and education.
The second speaker, Professor Stephen Boyd Davis, Director of the Landsdown Centre for Electronic Arts, talk was titled ‘Defending the Thesis: why the written thesis is better idea than ever’. He argued that a PhD makes explicit the implicit and makes overt the tacit. I liked his term ‘cognitive performance’; something that is developed though the rigours of arguing a position via a linear, argumentative and evidence-based narrative over a long period of time.
I do worry that new communication devices at times privilege the short term and the practical and research should never shy away from grand and significant questions that may not have a quick and practical fix. I particularly liked how he presented his own thesis to the audience revealing his use of image and text. As he implied; how we understand the ‘traditional’ written thesis has changed considerably, at least in terms of access to it and the content within it. Many theses are now available online that can be searched and parsed by search tools and text-mining tools thus making the text more readily available and perhaps contestable.
Many of these debates are incredibly important to the Digital Humanities as practice is so central to the field. Within the Digital Humanities I prefer the concept of an ‘ETD’ or Electronic Theses and Dissertation as it retains the ‘traditional’ framework of the written thesis but also allows computational digital objects to be embedded within it. It could also be used as a framework to publish critical editions of classical texts whist embedding the critical and argumentative apparatus within it. An ETD could also be published in two versions; one digital and one paper. This is as long as the digital component adheres to digital preservations conventions and standards and the University has the ability to store it (in many Universities the later is not the case).
More information can be found on the seminar series blog: http://newdoctorates.blogspot.com/